Chinese scientist who first published COVID sequence protests after being locked out of his lab

SHANGHAI — The first scientist to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus in China was staging a sit-in protest after authorities locked him out of his lab.

Virologist Zhang Yongzhen wrote in an online post Monday that he and his team had been suddenly notified they were being evicted from their lab, the latest in a series of setbacks, demotions and ousters since Zhang published the sequence in January 2020 without state approval. The move shows how the Chinese state continues to pressure and control scientists conducting research on the coronavirus.

News of Zhang’s protest spread widely on Chinese social media, attracting public attention. In an online statement, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center said that Zhang’s lab was being renovated and was closed for “safety reasons.” It added that it had provided Zhang’s team an alternative laboratory space.

In response, Zhang wrote online that his team wasn’t offered an alternative lab until after they were notified of their eviction, and that the lab offered didn’t meet safety standards for conducting their research, leaving his team in limbo.

When Zhang tried to enter his lab over the weekend, guards barred him from entering. In protest, he sat outside on flattened cardboard in drizzling rain, pictures from the scene posted online show.

“I won’t leave, I won’t quit, I am pursuing science and the truth!” he wrote in a post on Chinese social media platform Weibo that was later deleted. “The Public Health Center are refusing to let me and my students go inside the laboratory office to take shelter.”

Zhang said it was “inconvenient” for him to speak when an AP reporter reached him by phone on Tuesday, saying there were other people listening in. But in an email to collaborator Edward Holmes seen by AP, Zhang confirmed he was sleeping outside his lab after guards barred him from entering.

An AP reporter was blocked by a guard at an entrance to the compound where Zhang’s lab is located. A staff member at the National Health Commission, China’s top health authority, said by phone that they were not the main department in charge and referred questions to the Shanghai government. The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zhang’s ordeal started when he and his team sequenced the virus on Jan. 5, 2020 and wrote an internal notice warning Chinese authorities of its potential to spread. At the time, Zhang had not yet made the sequence public. The next day, Zhang’s lab was ordered temporarily shut by China’s top health official, and Zhang came under pressure by Chinese authorities.

Foreign scientists soon learned that Zhang and other Chinese scientists had sequenced the virus but had not yet been permitted to publish them, prompting public calls for publication. In response, Zhang published his sequence of the coronavirus on Jan. 11, 2020, despite a lack of government permission.

The move allowed health authorities around the world to begin testing for the virus, revealing that it was spreading outside China’s borders and triggering the development of test kits, vaccinations and disease control measures. Zhang was later awarded prizes in recognition.

But Zhang’s publication of the sequence also prompted additional scrutiny of his lab, according to Holmes, Zhang’s collaborator and a virologist at the University of Sydney. Zhang was removed from a post at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and barred from collaborating with some of his former partners, crippling his research.

“Ever since he defied the authorities by releasing the genome sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19 there has been a campaign against him,” Holmes said. “He’s been broken by this process and I’m amazed he has been able to work at all.”

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